Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Entering the Bullshit Zone

A lot of you may think that my life is pretty damn sweet. I get paid a decent wage for talking about books and ideas. Books and ideas that I'd talk about for free in the pub or on park benches were I not paid to do so within the confines of bad architecture. 

But like the rest of you, academia has been poisoned by the discourses of self-help, marketing, capitalism and all the other snake-oil bullshitters inexplicably given prime-time TV shows and acres of broadsheet print. 

Take this conference:

Entrepreneurial Education & Innovation: Developing Entrepreneurial Mindset for Knowledge Economy – explore the global eco-system of entrepreneurial mind-sets and high growth strategies in innovation. 

OK, it's not grammatical. But more than that: it's an offence to education and humanist values. Norman Fairclough himself would have a heart attack trying to swallow this rubbish. I particularly object to the implication that 'knowledge' is the key. I'd have thought that facts were less important than philosophy. Forget the tabloid Philistines' open and honest contempt for education: the real barbarians are inside the gates, mocking and sneering at us. 

Let's look more closely at what this might mean. 
The Entrepreneurial Innovation Conference… will address the need for an entrepreneurial mind-set in those countries wishing to compete successfully in the global market. 

No. The closest I can get is 'scoop up some suits from an airport and ask for their Alan Sugar-esque insights, because we all know that capitalism is the product of individual genius, don't we?'. I can't even begin to think what 'high-growth innovation' is. I didn't think innovation was a measurable commodity.  
Well, I think the last few years have proved that globalisation, capitalism and entrepreneurship have saved the world's economy. Look at Bernie Madoff, Rich Ricci, Alan Sugar himself (though not too closely): shining examples of sustainable and equitable development. Oh, hang on a minute. 

But I'm being mean. They're not all snake-oil salesmen. Look who's coming to dinner:

The conference will be chaired by professional speaker, moderator and author Roy Sheppard ensuring a slick, interactive and entertaining day (and night!)  “He’s also our dinner speaker!”  

Indeed: his after-dinner speech is 'How to be Upbeat in a Downbeat World!'

You can always tell you're getting a sober analyst by the presence of italicised bold complete with quotation and exclamation marks. I think it's worth quoting Roy's CV at length because it tells you what this pseudo-academic event is really like and for.

Roy Sheppard is a specialist international conference moderator and business speaker working with countless global organisations at the C-suite level. He has moderated numerous global conferences and summits for the Olympic movement and has worked extensively in the IT, pharmaceutical, oil and gas, retail real estate and tobacco sectors.  
A trained therapist and former BBC broadcaster, Roy is knowledgeable, funny, inspirational and thought-provoking.  
Roy is the 'conscience of the audience' and he sees his role as ensuring delegates and guests gain maximum value from attending the event. He has been a visiting lecturer at Cranfield and Henley and is also the author of various relationship books. 
His most recent, to be published in July 2013, are for all 15 to 25 year olds; Dear Son: what I wish I'd known at your age and Dear Daughter: what I wish I'd known at your age. 
Roy’s books include:
-  Dear Son: what I wish I’d known at your age
Dear Daughter: what I wish I’d known at your age 
How to Be The One. This book explains how to be a better girlfriend, boyfriend, husband or wife for your existing partner, or for ‘the one’ you have yet to meet 
Meet Greet & Prosper. A handy pocketbook on the essential skills of networking. FREE COPY FOR ALL DINNER GUESTS 
- Rapid Result Referrals. How to turn your contacts into customers by using ethical word-of-mouth techniques and strategies.  

So not only is Roy not an academic, he is – inevitably – a 'therapist'. Is he a qualified therapist? Who knows? His qualifications aren't exactly trumpeted on his website. All we know is that he happily works for the most sinister corporate sectors in existence. And lucky attendees get his book Meet Greet and Prosper for free! Anyone who says it's a rewrite of perennial losers' manual How To Make Friends And Influence People is just a cynic. 

But it could be worse: at least he's not handing out copies of another of his self-published books, That Bitch: Protect Yourself Against Women with Malicious Intent, co-authored by Mary Cleary.  

So, who's going to this conference? Well, apart from any of my colleagues (we've all been invited), it's aimed at:

all strategic decision makers from across the globe

which makes me feel pretty darned important and entrepreneurial, let me tell you.  

Still, it could be worse. UCL hosted a conference on 'resilience', which I suspect would have cost you many hundreds of pounds. 

ISRS is due to hold its inaugural conference on 13 November 2012, entitled “Building an Ethos of Resilience: A new Manifesto for Business.”  
The purpose of the conference is to assess how individuals, organisations and societies can build resilience to crises. In the modern interdependent, networked world, crises are now the norm not the exception. Without understanding the true nature and reasons for these events, the risk of continued vulnerability remains. This conference will unpick the complexities that give rise to crises and offer practical and deliverable solutions to those seeking to tackle the crucial task of building resilience. 
Resilience to crises is the key to the fitness of organisations in our uncertain times. This is a working event for business leaders, civil servants and academics to help guests develop practical ideas to take back into their own environment so that they can build greater personal and organisational resilience.

Who's there to tell you about 'resilience' and explain why 'crises are now the norm' (which seems closely allied to the Shock Doctrine of paramilitary capitalism)?
Tony Blair – the importance of resilience in leaders
Oh OK. That's one war criminal millionaire. Who else?
Michael Gove – education is the foundation
And a man with a personal grudge against intellect. Next?
John Reid – placing resilience at the heart of your strategy 
One of the most reactionary and knuckle-headed New Labour apparatchiks, now making large amounts of money from security firms (which he never mentions on TV). Spoil me more!
John Browne – constant innovation 
Would that be the John Browne who perjured himself in court and had to resign in disgrace? The one then employed to essentially privatise Higher Education? Why yes, it is! 

Who else? Well, a lot of shills, and then one other speaker who caught my eye. Why, it's internationally-acclaimed critical management studies guru… Ross Kemp! Yes, the former 'actor' of EastEnders fame.  

REF star Ross Kemp in action
Sadly, my informant informs me that neither the press nor the public were admitted into UCL's ivory tower to discover what this motley crew of criminals, thugs and ITV4 stars could tell us about 'resilience', but I'm sure it was worth every penny. 

So when you imagine me scratching away with a quill on parchment to bring the world the latest insights into 1930s Welsh writing, remember this: I'm 'going forward' with 'entrepreneurial' zeal into the  'knowledge economy'. I'm a 'global thought leader'. I'm innovative. I'm…crying, head down on my desk as I think of the days when universities weren't complicit in selling people lies. 

Monday, 29 April 2013


My least favourite MP and yours, Mr Paul Uppal, excelled himself in the smarm and self-interest stakes this week. Here he is, rooting for massive tax cuts for his corporate friends and grovelling to his Tory overseers:

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. On a confessional point, you were my mentor in the last general election and in no short part do I hold my presence in this Committee and in this august chamber down to your guidance. I am for ever in your debt.
On the specific point that my hon. Friend was making about the simplification of tax, does he welcome, as I do, the fact that reducing corporation tax to 20% will actually make corporation tax much more consistent? We currently have a top rate of tax for large companies, and for small companies there is an intermediate and marginal rate. The fact that we are reducing it to 20% in one swoop is, in essence, making the corporation tax system as a whole much simpler.
That's right: 'simpler'. So it's not a massive gift to companies which in any case avoid paying taxes on an industrial scale, it's just 'simpler'. Of course, you could have a 'simple' corporation tax of 30% or 40% too (like income tax), but that would be to breach the bounds of rightwing discourse. When they say 'simple',  they mean 'lower' for tax and 'none' for environmental, health, safety, equality, discrimination and employment law. 

What else has he been saying?
his debate reminds me of my time on the Welfare Reform Bill Committee, where there seemed to be a general consensus on both sides that whatever the nature of jobs, even part-time micro jobs, they are an essential step in getting people out of poverty and into the habit of work. Moreover, many part-time jobs lead on to full-time jobs, so it is a win-win situation for everybody.
Yes, he slaved for years on that Committee, and all he has to show for it is a belief in 'part-time micro job' and a completely unsupported assertion that 'many part-time jobs lead on to full-time jobs'. Which is almost certainly untrue: both here at the university and in the service sector as a whole, the new poison is 0-hours contracts, which leave you in limbo. You might be called in to work, but you might not. You can't get a second job because it might stop you doing random hours on your first one. Pizza Hut is one such disgusting exploiter. They're the kinds of jobs people are getting these days. As a nation, we should be proud. 

And finally:
I represent an urban west midlands seat, where I hold a weekly surgery. Something that comes up again and again for many of my constituents, who are in this age group, is the generational deficit. If we do not live prudently and within our means as a Government it is the younger generation, the children of those constituents, who will have to pay. Have the Opposition done an impact assessment on the people who will have to pay the bill? 
That's a weekly surgery 'by appointment', lasting 2 hours. When he talks of the generational deficit, he's quietly referring to the constituents he hopes will save him: the rich pensioners on the western edge of the city, people who like to think that they got rich entirely on their own. Paul, like them, got a free education, healthcare, and all the other advantages of the social-democratic state. Now they want to remove it for the younger generations while protecting their own non-means-tested TV licences and bus passes. 

If Paul wants to live 'within our means as a Government', why is he cutting corporate taxes, cutting high-earners' taxes, and voting to spend £80 billion on new nuclear weapons? Why did he connive in the sacking of thousands of tax collectors, while allowing the Big Four accountancy firms to write new legislation?

No, what Paul wants is a Dickensian society in which poverty is associated with personal failure. No safety net, no human rights (he's opposed to them too) and no society. All dressed up in the discourse of prudence. 

Thankfully, Paul won't be an MP much longer. He has a majority of 691, acquired running against Gordon Brown's unpopularity. If that's the best he could do in 2010, I don't think he'll be troubling the public after 2015. 

Talking of revolting Tory hypocrites, guess who I spotted at the train station yesterday? Camera crew, sneer, revolting pink blazer?

Don't know who took the picture: nicked from a local Facebook site. 

Yes, Michael Portillo, making another of his programmes about how great railways were until his government sold them off. Was he in town to apologise for the destruction wrought on the city by his neoliberal economics? Don't hold your breath.

Friday, 26 April 2013


What a weird Friday. My post about the True Blue Cookery Book made The Guardian, to the amusement of my colleagues. The university got restructured to general disbelief and horror (sorry: the new structure will be put to Academic Board, just like Kim Jong-un's election was a close-run thing). I've had a steady stream of panicking dissertation students coming in for last-minute advice. And now the National Library of Wales is on fire. I hope my friends working there and all my lovely books, manuscripts and archives are OK.

In general, I'm feeling like this:

whereas I'd like to be feeling like this (as would the dissertation kids):

Or indeed this:

On the plus side, lots of good books have come today. I've dumped Amazon for new books because they don't pay their taxes, which feels excellent. I've received Kevin Barry's Dark Lies The Island, short stories by the author of the excellent City of Bohane, Tristan Hughes's Revenant to complete the set; Tim Armstrong's Scots Gaelic SF novel Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach (On A Glittering Black Sea), Nick Barclay's literary/crime classic Hooky Gear, Melvin Burgess's new drugs/death YA novel The Hit  and the latest in Simon Morden's Petrovich series, The Curve of the Earth, which annoyingly doesn't have the same lovely uniform design as the previous three. Damn you, marketers!

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Save Abu Qatada

I'd have thought this was obvious, but judging by my Twitter feed, it isn't. So here we go again, in simple words. 

The Conservatives want to export Abu Qatada to Jordan, where evidence obtained under torture will be used to imprison or execute him. 

Four objections to torture: 
1. It's immoral.
2. It's illegal.
3. If you don't like 1 or 2, try this: it doesn't work. People will say anything to make it stop. 
4. If you do it to your enemies, your enemies will do it to your people. Once Britain openly supports torture (rather than simply practicing it, as currently), nobody can object when British people are tortured elsewhere. 

The Conservatives are thinking of temporarily suspending the UK's membership of the European Convention on Human Rights (largely drafted by British lawyers) so that they can send Qatada away. Again, in simple terms, here's why that's a bad idea. 

Currently, the ECHR says this:

No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. 
Nice and simple. Not 'No one nice'. 

1. Human rights are acquired by being human. There's nothing in the concept which adds 'unless we don't like you'. That's the point of universal human rights: everybody's got them. Someone tweeted that you have to shoulder responsibilities to gain rights. Wrong. Babies have human rights. People with mental health issues have human rights. Rapists and genocidal maniacs have human rights. 

It's like this: to be a civilisation, you have to behave in a civilised fashion. If you decide that you'll behave in the same way as a genocidal maniac, you've resigned as a nation/state/entity from civilisation. The mark of a civilised polity is how it treats the worst people, not how comfortable the lives of the conformists may be. A nation which tolerates the vilest people is a great nation. 

2. Once we decide that human rights can be switched on and off like a tap, where do we stop? Today, cartoon beardy terrorist sympathisers. Tomorrow: Basque nationalists. The day after: student protesters in need of a kicking, secondary picketers, badger cull saboteurs, the unemployed and roads protesters. Then a leftwing government might decide that if huntsmen torture foxes on video, they don't need the right to a fair trial or a lawyer. Perhaps we'll decide that the BNP, who don't believe in human rights, don't deserve to benefit from them. And so on until rights are reserved only for golfers and 'decent chaps' who don't make a fuss.

Personalised law is no law at all.

And Qatada? We're constantly being told he's Al-Qaeda's representative in Europe, that he's a dangerous terrorist mastermind. If so, he's committed multiple crimes: the UK has instituted the most draconian legislation in judicial history over the past 20 years: Orwell's 'thoughtcrime' is pretty much a reality. Put him on trial (although I suspect he's unlikely to get a fair trial in this country, given the government and media coverage thus far). Sending him to Jordan for an unfair trial because 'he must be guilty of something' isn't justice, it's blind reaction. Not coincidentally, when I did jury service, the forewoman said to us all 'He must be guilty because he doesn't look sorry'. Laugh? I almost cried. 

Unless, of course, he's nothing more than a vicious, reactionary peddler of hate. In which case, argue with him, spy on him, ridicule him: just don't subvert one of the pillars of civilised society simply for the satisfaction of having one horrible little man murdered in some torture cell by a puppet state. I can't think of an easier way of proving to his supporters that he was right all along. 

Seriously people: grow up. Being a scumbag doesn't mean you deserve to be murdered. If you think it does, you're a moral pygmy.

My life in rock and roll

It's not – as you may have assumed – all work work work here at Uppal Towers. I've been dealing with the influx of nervous dissertation students by going to gigs and dancing like a madman. I've seen five acts in two days: it's like being young again, if I ignore the ringing in the ears and tortured knees.

The first gig was in the local flea-pit, The Slade Room, where I've previously seen luminaries like Julian Cope, the Primitives and, er, The Nightingales. On the £6 bill: There's Someone In The Pond, a band whose name I didn't catch, and Dingus Khan. In the audience: about 50 people, dwindling to 12 by the time Dingus gave in.

TSITP are new and fun: once you ignore the matching red shirts declaring a White Stripes/Franz Ferdinand/Kraftwerk affiliation, you get raucous, funny garage rock with occasional tinges of metal and blues. Big dollops of the Pixies, Throwing Muses and the B-52s. Songs about taxi drivers abound. Female singing drummer. A Philippa Collins, if you will. So: a good start.

Un-named local band were either amazing, or awful. It all depends on your point of view. If you like songs that sound like Ocean Colour Scene, played with astonishing technical proficiency by three young men who have done little other than comb through Britpop C-list B-sides and practice relentlessly, then they're amazing. If you like songs with something to say, unexpected chord changes, spontaneity, fun and a bit of edge, then they're awful. I fall into the latter camp: all that skill misused. Between that and the cheesy attempts at audience participation, they'll be doing covers at wedding receptions before the year is out.

And then we get to Dingus Khan. I genuinely cannot tell you whether they were brilliant or bollocks. There were 7 men on stage. 6 wore painters' overalls. One wore a dress. 3 of them were drummers, 2 of them bassists, one a guitarist, one played an electric mandolin. On stage with them: a inflatable swan and a 1990s fax machine. They looked – and behaved – like a student drama society pitching up at the Edinburgh festival, and they were having an enormously good time. Perhaps a better time than the audience, which rapidly dwindled until it was barely bigger than the band.

The problem was the relentless semi-musical assault, which the video above doesn't convey, though it is their best song. They sounded like a cassette bootleg of a Pavement gig, copied over and over and over and over again, plus added sound effects from a steelworks. There were words, but I have no idea what any of them were. No light and shade was the problem: 40 minutes of maximum volume, and every song (or whatever) at exactly the same speed. Exhilarating, but also massively self-indulgent. I'm afraid to say that I skipped the opportunity to have a drink with them afterwards, for fear of reacting violently to exuberant youth. I'm allergic to both 'wacky' and 'zany'.

So, on to last night. Off to the Glee Club in Birmingham, for another gig by one of my longstanding musical addictions, Low. On paper, a rock band comprising two Mormons (one a recovering drug addict) might not sound that enticing, but they are and always have been superb. They have two of the best voices in music, and their repetitive, hypnotic, slow-paced, ethereal, stately songs offer a profundity that most bands will never approach. Oh yes: another singing female drummer. More please!

I first saw Low a few weeks after being exiled to the West Midlands, having been a long-time devotee. In an upstairs room in a semi-derelict pub, so many people crammed in that sweat dripped from the ceiling. The only way to get a drink was to pass £5 through the crowd: 20 minutes later most of a pint would get back to you, the rest cooling the bald spots of your fellow gig-goers as it passed over their heads. The performance was equally intense, to the point of being transcendent.

The support act was a chap called Hebtronix. He lacked any stage presence entirely: I thought he was the roadie when he got up, after which it became clear that we were witnessing something between a therapy session and a much-needed cathartic breakdown. Armed only with a guitar and a sampler which he used to loop said guitar, he created claustrophobic, off-kilter tracks overlaid with the occasional self-hating lyric. Strange as it might be, I rather enjoyed it once I got over the initial pity and concern for the mental health of this special needs Frank Zappa.

But Low, Low were something else. Intense, committed and beautiful. Here are a few of their recent songs - they've been going for over 20 years, so I can't represent their many phases.

Moving on Uppal

You may have noticed that I haven't devoted much space recently to the egregious Paul Uppal MP, the secretive millionaire. The fact is, he's been idle even by his own low standards. Or rather, perhaps, he's been weaselling away on his own advancement behind the scenes. Beyond posting the usual press releases from HQ with his name inserted, he appears to have done nothing: not even a word about the death of St Margaret. 

But worry not, Uppalians! Here he is, emerging from the woodwork in the most august of Tory company. For lo! David Cameron, fearful of the wrath of his own party – many of whom think he's a slippery customer with less concern for their needs than a cat for its fleas – has announced a new Conservative Policy Board. Drawing on the wide experience and varied background of his MPs, the board is to be led by one Jo Johnson: white, male, Boris's brother, attended Eton, Oxford and joined the Bullingdon Club just like David. And George. And Boris. So another bold move towards diversity there. Who else is on this panel of Gargoyles? Peter Lilley, arch-Thatcherite, oil company director, foe of climate science and all-round bad egg (John Major referred to him as a 'bastard'). Jesse Norman, who passes for an intellectual in the Tory Party, which is like being the tallest dwarf. A bunch of other no-marks, and finally, Paul Uppal
who accompanied the prime minister on his recent visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar
What's Paul's qualification? Is it his shining intellect? Is it his fierce independence of mind and political courage? I think not. I'm sad to say that the Guardian's explanation of who he is (apparently some people don't read Plashing Vole) unconsciously hits the spot. Fine individual our Paul may be, but I rather suspect that he serves another purpose. You may not have noticed, but Dave's mates all seem to be… how shall I put this?… rather pale. They're all white, rich, aging and virtually all men. He needs, says Central Office, some minority friends. Nobody who'll scare the horses with, you know, opinions. Just somebody who'll make the photos look a bit more diverse. When we say 'all your friends are Etonians', you can point at Paul, with his poor degree from Warwick University, a man who speculated his way to millions rather than inheriting it, and brush off the critics.

When you're running a de facto racist administration, you need some minority faces to sell the policy. Labour did the same: whenever an Iraqi was tortured, a refugee was sent off to his death by the immigration agency, or civil liberties were withdrawn for minority groups, up popped Vaz, Malik, Khan and a small band of other careerists. 

And so we arrive at Paul. He's Asian. He holds (with a majority of 691) a grubby constituency which doesn't look like Surrey. He'll do. The fact that he's a grovelling loyalist without even the evolutionary ancestor of a spine is an added bonus. He knows which way his bread's buttered. He can make speeches claiming to represent Sikhs, ethnic minorities and urban Conservatives all the way to 2015. Then he'll lose his seat and get a place in the House of Lords, subsidised for the rest of his life while he makes self-serving and let's say 'inaccurate' pronouncements on all and sundry.

Everyone's a winner. Except the country, obviously. 

Thanks to Ali Brown, who spotted Paul's elevation at 6 a.m. this morning and writes an excellent blog

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

What's that? A Device for the Apprehension of Ne'er-do-wells?

The good Professor Elemental has a task: the execution of the United Kingdom's new spying-on-absolutely-everyone-for-ever law:

Brought to you, of course, by the two parties elected on a strong platform of Civil Liberties and an end to New Labour's authoritarianism. In a hilarious twist worthy of Kafka, the government has refused to reveal some of the details of the law… i.e. the ones inhabited by the Devil. Clearly surveillance is only for the likes of us, not those who rule us.

What's wrong with this picture?

As you may know, I'm an enthusiastic Twitterer. I follow and converse with all sorts of people: journalists, academics, readers, politicians and anonymous interesting people. I've found it invaluable in my academic work and in helping political campaigns. It's also a great outlet for my sarcastic and unfunny one-liners.

But the strengths of Twitter are also its weaknesses. Speed is a strength, but also a serious weakness, particularly in the case of breaking news. Yesterday, someone hacked Associated Press's feed, announcing a bombing in the White House. Cue panic on the stock markets. In the aftermath of the Boston bombing, thousands of Twitterers posted pictures of Sunil Tripathi, claiming him to be a suspect: one racist assumption led to the demonisation of a man guilty of nothing more than being brown in a public space. He is now missing, and some news outlets are claiming that police think a body pulled from a river could be his.

A few months ago, a Conservative lord was named in thousands of Tweets as a predatory paedophile without a shred of evidence. On a lighter note, last week saw liberal Twitterers claiming that the Sun was faking pictures of the Thatcher funeral crowd, because a building in the background looked like the unfinished Shard, which opened months ago. In fact, it was another building entirely.

So we know that the desire to jump on a bandwagon can – maliciously or not – lead to terrible consequences. Twitter isn't the forum for mature reflection: it's about instantaneous, widely-disseminated reaction. In the hands of non-professional news-gatherers, it should be accorded the same reliability as gossip overheard in the pub: sometimes true, often inaccurate, usually fascinating.

But professional news organisations have a different duty. In the days when newspapers appeared weekly, then daily, writers had the opportunity to investigate a story, establish the facts, consider the implications. 24 hour news sped up the process, and errors started to creep in, as well as hoaxes taking advantage of the media's desperation to fill up the space. Getting there first became far more important than getting things right. Where TV goes, newspapers follow – on the internet, there's little distinction.

Which brings me to the Daily Mail. Its owner, Lord Rothermere, whose Wiltshire mansion is actually in France for tax purposes (very patriotic), said this to Journalism Weekly:
Twitter is a major form of primary source material for us and the guys on Mail Online try and turn around stories from Twitter in about three minutes. So the timeliness of news is becoming much more important and journalists have to learn a lot more different skills in understanding that – and they are.
Sadly, the noble Lord fails to explain what these skills are. But this statement worries me. Certainly Twitter is a useful network, but it can only be a secondary source. As far as I'm aware, journalists' jobs include going out there to find stories. But in Rothermere's model, the stories come to people sitting at HQ.

The idea that a news story can be researched, verified and written in three minutes is antithetical to the notion of informative journalism. There's no reflection, no consideration of implications – not even time for a phone call to verify, or to check a story with the in-house lawyers. It leaves the newspaper entirely vulnerable to the whims of a mischievous public. There's no actual journalism at play: simply desperate reaction to whatever's caught the eye of the Twittersphere.

If I were running a newspaper, on- or off-line, I'd be running a mile from this rubbish. Sure, it gets lots of people clicking on the Mail's misogynistic website, and makes the advertisers very happy. But in this race to the bottom, the Mail can only lose over the long term. A newspaper should play to its strengths: verified news, supported by informed comment by experts written when the facts are in. Any idiot can spread rumours, whereas a newspaper has the people and resources to be authoritative (if it wants to be). Otherwise it's just a shell and a list of hyperlinks with no authority whatsoever. More than that: the Mail's new model is dangerous. It leads to witch-hunts, panics and untruths. No doubt the Mail is careful to use lots of 'according to' and 'claims that', but they'll be legally responsible for whatever they print. Their lawyers must be terrified by Rothermere's new approach.

But the truth is that the Mail and papers like the Mail don't care. They want hits: if that means error and distortion, so be it.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Master-race Chef: Conservative Cuisine

As you can probably imagine, I couldn't resist buying The True Blue Cookery Book when I heard of its existence last week. Inflation may have been rampant in 1977 and since, but it doesn't apply to this fascinating tome, which cost me 66p.

I've read The Raw and the Cooked, so I was dying to know what a Tory would and wouldn't eat. I wanted an insight into the gourmandising lives of the 1970s élite, especially those in Opposition, waiting for Labour's 'beer and sandwiches' regime to be thrown out of Downing Street.

But there's so much more than food to this little volume, published by the Ruislip-Northwood Conservative Association (and compiled, judging by the number of her own contributions, by 'Mrs. John Wilkinson', wife of the prospective candidate for that constituency). Check out that byline: 'Conservative Members of Parliament and their wives'.

That's right: Conservative MPs were all men. There are a few female MPs included, but they're clearly here on sufferance. Honorary men, let's say! In fact, very few MPs contribute: it's mostly wives. Wives who don't even have names beyond the patriarchal system:

There's also a weird class system going on: if you're a mere 'wife', you're simply the appendage of your MP husband. But if you have a title, suddenly you exist, albeit not as far as getting your own name in print. Here's 'Dr Morris, wife of Mr Michael Morris', while a couple of pictures down, we meet 'Lady Bryan'.

My hunch was that Tories would eat very, very bland food with a nationalist English slant. Let's find out!

Rock, and indeed, roll. Mrs Tim Renton isn't trying very hard.

And yet there are signs that the Conservatives' hatred of Europe has either not yet developed or not reached their stomachs: the Tories are very keen on French and other European 'fine dining', although if you look closely, you can see that the Gastro revolution hasn't yet caught on: Busecchino Di Uova turns out to be a can of tomatoes, peas and omelettes. 

Nicholas Ridley clearly lived better than most and wasn't worried about the Little Englanders, weighing in with a gloriously unhealthy concoction of scollops with wine, butter, cream and eggs. He was more open to some foreigners than others: he tried to negotiate the return of the Malvinas / Falkland Islands with the Argentine military dictatorship in 1980, supposedly because they didn't produce any wine. You wouldn't have caught him tucking into a plate of Bratwurst and a stein of lager however: he described the European Community (EU now) as a German plot to take over Europe and said that ceding any sovereignty to Brussels was like giving it to Adolf Hitler. (No Brussels Sprouts feature in this book either).

That's not the worst of them. How about this 'cold curried consommé'? It's a curious mix – a meal for people posh enough for starter courses, yet every ingredient is processed: canned soup, Philadelphia cheese and curry powder. Nigella would be horrified. Though at least these Tories are eating what their industrialist friends were serving us, and this was in the days when even the political élite were only lots richer than us, rather than stratospherically richer.

Here's another excitingly-titled dish, 'Haddock Flamenco', which turns out to be haddock with one quarter of a teaspoon of Tabasco for Spanish flavour. 

I also don't find much that's Esoteric in these Esoteric Kippers: frozen kippers with some citrus fruits and soured cream. No wonder the Tories bayed from the back benches like beached seals: they had terrible indigestion.

At least Mrs David Price made a snobbish effort: her Estouffade de Bouef Valencienne sounds quite glamorous. It's actually a rather tasty-sounding Spanish beef stew. 

Certainly better than Mrs Tim Renton's patronising advice to you supermarket-dependent paupers:
I have discovered if you put those thin-shelled supermarket eggs into a bowl of warm water for a couple of minutes before putting them in boiling water, they very rarely explode all over the pan.
Thanks, Mrs Tim Renton!

Mrs. Frederick Silvester's tastes are pretty representative of her party's. They like their food like their social circles: bland and overwhelmingly white. I was hoping for Mrs Enoch Powell's Jamaican Jerk Chicken, but no such luck. Let's go straight to the top: what did Mrs T like to cook?

You certainly can't get whiter and blander than 'white fish', grated cheese, milk, and margarine (ugh). She doesn't say where the fish should come from: surely not Iceland, in the era of the Cod War (yes, this was a real thing).

Of course, there are always the creeps and the crawlers. Most notorious of these was Norman St. John Stevas, Thatcher's most reliable kiss-arse. And here is on predictable form:

Sole à la Margaret Thatcher? Ugh. Perhaps he got the idea from mishearing whenever he approached: 'Ah, sole', he thought she was saying. 
But Norman's got a wicked sense of humour. Can you imagine how hurt former Prime Minister Harold Wilson was when he saw the recipe for Lettuce au Harold Wilson?

I tell you, this is not just culinary gold: it's comedy gold. Actually, I have no idea what he was trying to get at. Wet lettuce = Wilson, perhaps?
What of the other weirdos on the Tory bench? Well, crusty former PM and confirmed bachelor Edward Heath rather pompously provided a recipe by his housekeeper. As one would assume, it's puffed-up yet unmemorable. 

 So there we have it. The foods that sustained the Conservative Party on the Long March to Victory (for them) and utter, utter defeat for the rest of us. I look forward to the New Labour recipe book (tongue à la plutocrat, Mandelson's Pea Guacamole and lots of polenta, Tom Watson's Plotters' Curry and for Gordon, cold salted porridge), then the Cameron Cookbook: lies, Eton Mess.

Twitter help required!

I'm getting this error message from Twitter on my Mac, even if I only try to tweet one word. Help! I feel disenfranchised. I can only Tweet from my phone. I've restarted Twitter and the Mac. No joy.

Opening and ending tag mismatch: link line 9 and head
Entity 'rarr' not defined
Opening and ending tag mismatch: img line 35 and div
Entity 'copy' not defined
Opening and ending tag mismatch: div line 32 and body
Opening and ending tag mismatch: body line 11 and html
Premature end of data in tag link line 8
Premature end of data in tag meta line 6
Premature end of data in tag meta line 5
Premature end of data in tag meta line 4
Premature end of data in tag head line 3
Premature end of data in tag html line 2
Any suggestions?

Update: fixed - it must have been a Twitter-end problem. Thanks for the people who replied. Except for @bruno_di_gradi. 

Vodafone: they literally don't get the message.

Receiving an unwanted promotional text from Vodafone today, I thought I'd respond with an equally unwelcome message:

'Not delivered': that'd be right.

Vodafone, in case you missed it, is one of the world's most egregious tax avoiders. Any trick they can think off, they pull. In the end, a private deal with the head of HMRC (of very dubious legality, let alone morality) let them off a £6 billion bill.

We're also used to the idea (other than in the banking sector) that CEOs of global companies are very clever men (they are all men). Perhaps this is erroneous. I watched an interview on Channel 4 News yesterday in which Eric Schmidt said two interesting things.

He said that Google wouldn't be paying any more taxes than required (carefully not mentioning that his entire global corporate structure is set up to move profits to no-tax centres through chicanery) because Google does lots of 'philanthropic work' (tossing a few crumbs rather than being a responsible corporate citizen) and that the UK government had to get the economy going through a much greater financial stimulus (5.33 onwards).

Where does Eric think governments get their money from? He's a very clever man. Surely he knows that money comes from taxes. So basically he's saying that those of us who can't hide our money offshore should bail out those – like him – who can.

There's a word for people like Eric, but this is a family blog. But here's a thought: if Google paid local full corporate taxes in the countries where profits are made, perhaps our libraries wouldn't be closing, our hospitals sold off and our infrastructure failing. Increasing your profit margins by deceiving the taxman isn't innovation or any of the things business textbooks talk about. It's just parasitism.

Monday, 22 April 2013

That time of year…

Hi everybody. How was your weekend? I read some dissertations, saw friends, went to a lovely production of Around the World in 80 Days, cooked good food and ate my weight in cheese. So basically, perfection.

Little action on the blogging front today and probably for the rest of the week. Apart from a full teaching schedule, the dissertations and some final-year essays are due in a few days. The atmosphere is febrile, even more stressed than last year's finalists. So I have a massive pile of dissertation drafts, essays and some MA theses to be read, followed by a stream of people coming in to have their hands held/grammar fixed/ears boxed. It's a bit like this.

Actually, the ear-boxing isn't happening: all the OK-to-good students are coming in for help. The absentees are those who are very likely to fail, the students I haven't seen all year despite me sending regular emails, speaking to them in other classes and despatching pigeons to their homes. Why you would decide not to bother after getting to the end of a three-year degree is beyond me, but one of the games we play on stage at Graduation is 'put the face to the name', because there are always people there that we've not seen in three years (and not just the Dean). Mind you, I didn't have to do an undergraduate dissertation: the degree depended on a Shakespeare exam done at the end of 2nd year and the Finals exams at the end of year 3. That suited me fine. I'm a lazy and undisciplined slacker and certainly wasn't capable of sustained work throughout the year. Doing an MA and PhD thesis was a rude awakening, I can tell you. No, I worked according to the panic principle. Cram enough in to get me through the next day's exam, empty the cranium for the next one. I'm not proud, far from it. My students work far harder than I ever did, as I've been gleefully telling them this week.

Anyway, as I'm Independent Study co-ordinator for one of the subjects I teach, I've added to the stress by turning submission into a lateral thinking obstacle course. Dissertations have to be handed in on paper (two copies, bound), and electronically for Turnitin purposes. Turnitin is of course worse than useless for Humanities subjects: literature dissertations tend to quote a lot… and quotes up your Cheat Percentage considerably. So I'm viewing Turnitin submission as just a way to scare the bejasus out of the usual suspects. As long as they don't read this (and let's face it, they avoid words in any context, so it's likely they don't spend their leisure hours perusing Vole), the deterrent effect will continue. After that with thanks to Douglas Adams), all they need to do is hand the hard copies in at the Registry, now renamed Here2Hinder. Opening hours are 2-5 (a.m.) every alternate Friday. Mind how you go: the lights are out and those basement stairs are a bit tricky. Ignore the 'Beware of the Leopard' sign, he's a heavy sleeper, and you might need a jemmy to get at the receipt, as the printer is kept in a locked filing cabinet. Try not to annoy the staff there: they haven't been fed for a couple of days and they do get a bit snappy.

I've also placed this XKCD cartoon on my door, as I always do in this week (you might need to click to enlarge):

It's funny because it's true. 

I had to laugh at one email from a second year student today. She apologised for not being able to make  today's tutorial and asked if she could mail her essay instead. Why? Because she had a baby on Friday. The email ended with 'sorry for the inconvenience'! Last year another student gave a presentation two days after giving birth. In future, I'm going to send anyone with a lame excuse straight to them for a little chat. 

Right: back to the drafts. Correcting these semi-colon abuses might be the difference between a pass and a fail. 

Friday, 19 April 2013

One-track minds

A really short history of one privatised railway route.

East Coast Mainline.

  • First it was privatised. Taxpayers gave the franchisee billions in subsidy and through upgrading the infrastructure.
  • Then the operator failed to make their insane financial model work and walked away: the state took it over again, in the form of a company called Directly Operated Railways. 
  • DOR was so successful that subsidies come to 1% of its income, less than all the other 15 privatised operators, 32% of whose income is taxpayers' money, on average. 
  • About 20% of the money paid back to the government by train operators comes from DOR. 
  • DOR is to be privatised again

So in summary: a state railway, in a fair and real-world test, is shown to cost taxpayers, the government and the passenger less than a privatised one. So it's being privatised.

At this point, one can only surmise that evidence is far, far less important than ideology. What a stupid government.

A Pre-Memorial

Some people have the unfortunate opportunity to read their own obituaries, mistakenly published by newspapers. It's rumoured that Alfred Nobel, having seen himself described as a 'merchant of death' (he was an arms manufacturer) founded the eponymous prize to make amends. Marcus Garvey supposedly died of a stroke on reading his own obituary ('broke, alone and unpopular'), which seems rather ironic. Samuel Taylor Coleridge read his own obituary and coroner's report in a newspaper: a man who hanged himself was wearing a shirt apparently stolen from the poet with his name on a label. It was Mark Twain of course who quipped that 'Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated'.

Quite gloriously, it was reported that having survived two plane crashes, Ernest Hemingway used to regularly read a scrapbook of his obituaries, while swigging champagne. This is what I hope my friend – and Vole reader – MT is going to do, because I'm going to write a little bit of his obituary here and now. It's only partial, because I only see a small part of his life, but that's what makes it personal.

M is well known to my office colleagues, even though they've never met or spoken to him. He phones me regularly, more times than I can answer him. Often, of course, it's because I'm out teaching, or in meetings or whatever. Sometimes it's because I'm stuck deep into some marking or research and I know that there's no such thing as a short conversation with M. We have too much in common. We're both slightly obsessive geeks on the same subjects. We agree – and disagree – about politics and economics and can spend hours talking around the most obscure topics. If I need advice about hi-fi electronics, he's the one to consult. We both Mac obsessives and photography enthusiasts. He's from a technical/engineering background and is endlessly fascinated by design, by society as a system, and by the way making things well has been replaced in the nation's economic structure by speculation and fiscal trickery. We profoundly disagree on so many things (he doesn't feel most of you belong in internment camps, for one) but one of the things I most respect about him is his determination to test ideas to destruction rather than adopt an ideological position and stick to it in the face of the evidence, which is sometimes beyond me. For a long time he ran one of the early electric cars, for which I admired him deeply. I've never spoken to him without learning something new or seeing an issue from another perspective. This is why my colleagues know M: because when I pick up that phone, they know I'll be elsewhere for quite some time.

I've known M for probably 10-15 years now, though it's only over the past few years that we've become friends rather than acquaintances. He is a leading fencing coach, referee and former director of England Fencing. Without him, many of the stars past and present would never have got where they are today. I'm not one of those stars: I first encountered M in his refereeing role. Having seen me fence and referee around the circuit, we got to know each other to the extent that when he refereed my fights, he'd intersperse his judgements with a running commentary on how awful my style and technique really are. If I won, he would loudly suggest that I should be ashamed of myself. This is when I knew that we were destined to be friends: not only does this approach match my sense of humour, I secretly knew that he was right. I'm the Stoke City of fencing: I play ugly and sometimes win ugly against much better people.

So that was the start of a friendship forged in dank sports halls across the country, one which started in sport and came to encompass so many other aspects of our lives. MT is at the heart of a network of fencers who meet up for plotting, gossip and teasing occasionally interrupted by a little light coaching or competition. Being initiated into the club means always seeing a friendly face whether you're at an Under-8s competition or a World Cup event in the Polish boondocks. It means being inducted into the cultural memory of my sport, and it means joining the Resistance: M and his friends are the ones who do the real work, underpaid and often in spite of the efforts of the toff in blazers still infesting the upper reaches of the organisation. If there's an Awkward Squad, he's its general and plenty of people bear the scars of battle, yet he's one of those people who never leave the vanquished resentful because he always plays the ball, not the man (though some devastatingly witty character judgements will be uttered accompanied by a disarming giggle which I'll miss enormously.

MT has now been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. The last few times I didn't dare answer the phone because I could see my afternoons disappearing, he wanted to tell me this. So you can probably imagine how guilty I now feel. As to how he's feeling? Well, he's taken the diagnosis exactly as I'd have expected. Like Wilko Johnson, he's laughing in its face. He doesn't know how long he has, some treatment might slow its progress, but he's feeling OK. When I spoke to him, we talked about it briefly before moving on to the things that we usually talk about - this week it was of course Margaret Thatcher's death, a topic on which he was as nuanced as he always is.

MT: I know you're reading this. I know too that you're probably cringing with embarrassment and will brush off all this sentiment with a cutting remark, which is why I've typed it out rather than trying to say it to your face. There's no point saying this stuff when you've gone: I want you to know how we all feel about you, then we can all get back to mercilessly teasing each other. I'll answer the phone a lot more in the coming years and look forward to seeing you treat cancer the way you treat recalcitrant bureaucrats or stroppy prima-donna fencers: with amused disdain and infinite patience. When I say that he's my ideal of an Awkward Git, I mean it with all the warmth and respect I can muster.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Of pedagogy and penis

So, here's a post which requires a little tact and sensitivity. If you're my mother, one of my aunts (my core demographic, actually) or a low-rent tabloid newspaper, you should look away now. Read this instead. It's very good.

Gone? Excellent, we can begin. You might remember that a few weeks ago I briefly ran through the low-lights of Jilly Cooper's 1985 bonkbuster novel Riders, in which Germans 'goose-step', murderous dictator Francisco Franco is a beaming gentleman, and in which betrayed wives apologise to their husbands for making them commit adultery, then promise to try harder.

Here - from 8.05 - is Rupert's accusation, though Helen's acceptance of the charge has been cut from the televised version, presumably for being too reactionary even for commercial TV:

All glaringly free of any authorial irony at all. The book has gained even more significance recently, as the core of the novel is the messy transition from what Cooper calls 'socialism' to shiny 1980s winner-takes-all Thatcherism. But more of that anon.

No, I don't know what a 'classic bestseller' is either.

The first question is of course why I put this novel on a university course. Two of my friends were monstered by a local tabloid and a rent-a-quote MP for featuring sexual material on one of their modules. Admirably, the university stood up to the bullying and gave the answer I'd give too: a lot of humans spend a lot of time having sex. Even more humans spend even more time thinking about sex. Things humans spend a lot of time doing or thinking about doing are important and need to be examined. (This applies to attacks on Media Studies too). Sex isn't a 'thing' that's been the same forever: it's a cultural text which impacts on every aspect of society. For instance, in Riders, sex with underage girls is a bit of a naughty laugh – not exactly an attitude readers would publicly adopt now.

The other charge against material like this is that it's somehow 'dumbing-down'. That universities should act like big Booker Prize panels, picking out (in Matthew Arnold's terms) 'the best that is thought and known' for preservation and dissemination. There's certainly a role for this kind of thing, but one of the positive lessons of postmodernism is that taste is subjective and contingent, not something which would bother Arnold. Instead, we're all Raymond Williamsites now: everything people do is intrinsically interesting and deserves analysis. When it comes to pulp fiction, we need to read it to understand the impulses which fuel its writing, publication, purchases and uses of pulp. I can pick any number of profound modern poems which examine the human condition (and I do, in lots of classes), but the fact is that most people are reading Jilly Cooper and her descendants. Geniuses are often a little odd: if you want to know what everyone else is interested in, you look at the mass market.

Which brings me to Riders itself, and my slight worry about the state of my career. It is, as I've said, an interesting novel. Underneath the appalling prose and structure, it has a political and cultural purpose. It promotes a weird melange of tradition conservative and Conservative aristocratic values, and expresses a considerable degree of horror at the rise of frightful nouveaux riches types like Kevin Coley the cat food king, who sponsors horses as long as they're named after his products. It spends a lot of time ridiculing and marginalising non-Alpha males, academics (I took this a little personally), intellectuals, homosexual men, lesbians (repeatedly), liberals, bogey-man 'Socialists', foreigners and the middle-classes whom I assume are actually the readership.

But it's the sex which is really striking. There isn't as much of it as you'd expect from Cooper's reputation but it's very interesting. The book devotes a lot of time to criticising bourgeois middle-class sexual morality, hence the author's contempt for poor American suburban import Helen, who is so hurt by her husband's compulsive adultery. Aristocratic men and women are rampant, it says: if you don't like it, stay away. But there's also a covert but insistent attempt to introduce the readership to a new politics of sexuality, a very 1980s version. For instance, hairy-legged, fun-free feminist shrew Hilary is converted to patriarchy through being slapped in the face then sexually assaulted by Rupert, one of our heroes. Lazy journalist Janey (shades of Cooper?) thinks she's free because she sleeps around before and after her marriage and because she works for a living, but she's not actually organised enough to live independently, and we're explicitly told that she needs a husband and a baby to fulfil her. Silly girl! Oh, and the women are constantly being assessed in exactly the same way and using the same words as  the men examine and talk about their horses.

Yet the actual mechanics of the sex in Riders is very interesting, and demonstrates the fuzzy boundaries of 80s individualism and sexual liberation. And here's where teaching gets interesting: I never thought I'd find myself discussing the political significance of female-on-male oral sex in a classroom one Monday afternoon with a socially diverse crowd of young and mature women. And least of all on a module called… wait for it… Positions! And yet here we are. We'd read Trollope's 19th-century attack on aristocratic amorality The Way We Live Now, Waugh's disapproving exposé of 1920s toffs Vile Bodies and Gwyn Thomas's Welsh mining novel Sorrow for thy Sons, which in many ways is the most sordid novel of the lot. But last on the list, carefully juxtaposed with these others, is Riders in all its gold-embossed glory.

On the sexual menu in Riders is: various more or less orthodox sexual encounters; droit de seigneur exploitation of more-or-less willing proletarians such as stable girls who are presumed to have no interior life at all; meaningless encounters with assorted foreigners – and repeated discussions of specific acts such as pubic shaving, oral sex, fantasies, and a very unhappy foursome in a Kenyan holiday home.

I think these are interesting firstly because it's through pulp fiction that practices previously restricted to pornography or marginalised groups become normalised. I suspect that the discussions of pubic hair removal in Riders, and perhaps the blow-job scenes, are amongst the first ones in popular mainstream fiction: and yet the book is enthusiastically endorsed by the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph amongst others. In case you think I'm joking, here's a screen shot of a recent Daily Mail page (h/t: @takitaki).

 Why do these right-wing outlets approve of all these hi-jinks? Partly, I suspect, because Jilly Cooper has been very clever. In the novel, the pubic hair issue is proposed by the women's partners as being for their own benefit, and the women come to like it. The same goes for the oral sex: there is some reciprocation, but as the classroom discussion discovered, the fellatio is essentially an act of patriarchal domination: the characters talk about it as something rather unpleasant which can eventually be enjoyed, while the unspoken truth is that by its very nature, it's a one-way process. Male pleasure, followed by sleep and/or a prolonged recovery period (as you can probably tell, I'm struggling for words here: this is not in my comfort zone). The orgy scene is also highly significant. The Kenyan setting evokes – for some readers – the notorious history of aristocratic expat hi-jinks in Happy Valley, and carefully distances the scene from 'real life'. In it, poor Helen is essentially sexually assaulted by her husband, his best friend and his wife, Janey: and they explain it as being good for her. When she finally gets away, they cheer the disappearance of the disapproving 'grown-up'. It's one of the very few moments of genuine sympathy for Helen, who is largely mocked for being pseudo-intellectual, sexually inadequate, politically liberal and American. Try this clip, especially from around 3.30:

But here we see the unacceptable edge of sexual liberation. Alpha-male patriarchy reveals its own contradictions in this scene. While the men's sexual impulses are 'natural', Rupert's cruelty becomes intolerable. Additionally, the orgy raises the suggestion of male-male sexual contact (never represented here) which is clearly beyond the boundaries of what's acceptable. Finally, I think there's an unspoken and old-fashioned fear: that group sex endangers patriarchal capitalism. None of them use contraceptives: if either of the women became pregnant, the orderly transmission of identity and property rights would be in serious doubt. It's these concerns, I think, which ensure that this is the scene which teaches readers where the boundaries are.

What we've got here is an uncomfortable mix of right-wing women's liberation, old-fashioned patriarchy, and anti-feminism. The novel proclaims the rights of at least upper-class women to sexual pleasure within and without marriage, as long as they accept that fulfilment ultimately lies in heterosexual submission to élite men. Sexually however, Cooper makes it clear that female sexual fulfilment is available only to patriarchally-approved acts: satisfaction lies in pleasing your man. Lesbians are unhappy predators or (even worse) droopy unhappy academics: the notion of women being sexually fulfilled without men is obviously a threat to Cooper's worldview. An awful lot of effort is expended in separating women's sexual liberation from their political liberation: awful Hilary may name her children after Kate Millett and Germaine Greer, but she smartens up once Rupert sees the inner beauty hidden by her frumpy right-on clothes and attitudes and forcibly enfolds her within the patriarchy. Feminists are self-destructive monsters in this novel: women can and should enjoy sex, but that's as far as their ambitions should go.

And of course, the female sexual emancipation story is overshadowed by the novel's driving plot: rivalry between men in which women and horses are interchangeable objects to be traded between them in a homosocial – if not homerotic – competition.

Pulp fiction either specialises in Bakhtinian carnivalesque transgression: we read it to indulge dreams we wouldn't attempt to reproduce in 'real life', or its a conduit for imagining new ways of organising society. Riders is like Fifty Shades: either a safety-valve for frustration or a channel for  previously-marginalised subcultures to enter the mainstream. The success of Riders, I think, is that it beautifully identifies a bourgeois, largely-female readership which has no interest in new forms of politics or social structures, but does want to read about and even try out new sexual identities. It's therefore a Tory Liberation: the trappings of liberation are there, but reduced to individual experience. There's precious little empathy or gender consciousness in this novel.

This is why it's a Tory sex manual: all relationships and sexual practices are stripped to the status of a menu, denuded of political or cultural significance. The idea that there's a cultural history or context here, or that readers are complicated creators of meaning, is implicitly discounted. Riders definitely isn't just a bit of fun: it's a fascinating insight into the psyche of a time, a class, a place and a philosophy. You won't be surprised to learn the the sequel, Rivals combines sex with the machinations of… privatised TV stations.

Should you read Riders? Not for fun, certainly. It's just too badly written, as though Cooper has a grudge against the English language (though she's curiously obsessed with naming 'classics' of English literature as though to prove that she's self-consciously slumming it). If English is a horse, it throws Jilly off its back with astounding frequency. But as a key text for understanding the 80s… and the current government: hell yes.

How did the students respond? Well, they'd never read Cooper before but they had mostly read similar more recent texts. What they found interesting was the way in which they now read differently. Instead of consuming novels simply for pleasure (nothing wrong with that, of course), they said that they were now much more demanding readers, less easily pleased. Because of this they found it easy to talk about Cooper's techniques, the sexual politics and the reader's role pretty dispassionately. If there was any embarrassment in the room, it was mine. Of course, the module evaluation records might tell a very different story. But I'm glad I put this on the course. Nothing should be unspeakable or unteachable, and I refuse to accept that there isn't something to be learned from any available text.

Now I'll just sit back and wait for the local rag to run outraged headlines about moral and educational decay…

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

It's the end of the world as we know it… and I feel fine

So, the Thatcher funeral. A 7 hour tribute in the Commons compared with the 45 minutes afforded Winston Churchill. A David Cameron interview this morning which claimed that 'We are all Thatcherites now', and that a funeral indistinguishable from a State one is necessary because 'foreigners' would think it odd if we didn't. £10 million for a funeral for a woman who made sure that striking miners' families were refused funeral grants for their men's families. Peter Mandelson telling us this morning that she told him 'The Irish are liars. Liars. You cannot forget that'. The desolation of Northern Ireland, the dead hunger strikers, the SAS murder squads. The crumbling schools and fragmented HE system in which education is considered a private good rather than a public benefit – and the same goes for the NHS. The friendships with the most gruesome, grotesque characters on earth: Saudi dictators. Saddam Hussein. Pinochet. Kissinger. Murdoch. Archer. Aitken. Savile. Apartheid South Africa. Saying nothing when the US invaded a Commonwealth country (Grenada) for electing a socialist government. A host of industrialists who made their fortunes from making the poor fat and sick, cramming them into rabbit hutch houses and low-paid work if any. TV and radio cheapened and weakened. A supine media which hacks its way across the land in search of stories about footballers' sex lives. National xenophobia and hostility towards the poor, the black and now the disabled. A North laid waste, a South in thrall to debt and house prices beyond the reach of all but the richest. Former national utilities channelling billions to shareholders while the infrastructure decays. A country bankrupted by her City friends while industry is a fading ghost at the feast. Tax evasion as a legitimate profit centre (don't forget: Thatcher was a tax lawyer). Open contempt for the poor and for any notion of public service. Claims that the working classes are 'the enemy within'. The naked, bigoted hatred for homosexuals made concrete in Section 28, which forbade any teachers from mentioning homosexuality. Race riots. The cult of the motor car and the aeroplane. Privatised hospitals, social services and even prisons.

In fact, there's a piece of poetry which sums up how I feel about this seedy, polluted, socially-divided, vicious Thatcherite country. It's Hell, as seen by Satan in Paradise Lost, having been thrown out of Heaven:

The dismal Situation waste and wilde, [ 60 ]
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv'd onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace [ 65 ]
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum'd:
Such place Eternal Justice had prepar'd [ 70 ]
For those rebellious, here thir Prison ordain'd
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov'd from God and light of Heav'n
As from the Center thrice to th' utmost Pole.
O how unlike the place from whence they fell! 

Here instead, the voice of a man whose politics came, quite literally, from the coalface rather than PPE, a think-tank or a lobbyist's office.

Perhaps it's tasteless to say these things on a person's funeral – but she wanted a public funeral and the Tories have used taxpayers' money to make it a political affair. And nothing's more tasteless than what she did to this country.